remmeAs I was trawling my usual gaming haunts this morning, one article in particular caught my eye. It was a piece called “Why publishers refuse games such as Remember Me because of their female protagonists”, by Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell, and it deals with some of the issues faced by Jean-Maxime Moris, creative director of upcoming adventure game Remember Me, as the team attempted to shop their project around to interested publishers.

Now, you can already imagine what these issues were, given the title of Mr Bramwell’s article, and it’s not something we haven’t seen before. It is, however, another indictment of the state of the industry and its focus on what publishers think its audiences want (and their subsequent refusal to move away from that narrow cone of experiences). Moris told Penny Arcade that some publishers had simply dismissed the concept out of hand because of the protagonist’s gender: “We had some [companies] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.'” It raised some thoughts in my mind, so I’ve decided to tackle a couple of them here.

An increasing number of gamers are women. This shouldn’t need pointing out, but the quote above suggests that, sadly, it needs to be. According to the Entertainment Software Association, almost 40% of American gamers are female (I don’t know what the percentage is here in the UK, but let’s assume it’s similar). Why is it ok to alienate them, but not male gamers? Almost half of their addressable audience is apparently of no consequence to these people.

Another quote from Moris:

“We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.'”

You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game. Just… wow. Now, this seems to be Moris paraphrasing what was said to him, so in the interests of being fair we can’t say for certain whether the person who said it meant just that, or that this is what Moris took it to mean. If it’s the former, we have a serious problem. This suggests that the people at the top (the publishers, the business people who, more often than not, decide whether a game lives or dies) think of gaming as a uniquely male pastime; there is an expectation that ‘the player’ essentially equals ‘young male’, and there seems to be this complete and utter refusal to see that there is a large base of female gamers that perhaps feel they aren’t being catered for in any meaningful way. I can only imagine how they must feel when they see a quote like this. Perhaps they’re just so used to it by now that they simply groan and move on with their day. But if publishers truly believe female protagonists will alienate male gamers, how can they be content to alienate female gamers who make up almost half of the game-playing (and buying) public? Are they simply that short-sighted?

(As an aside to the kissing quote: from a male standpoint, why would I care that the character in the game is kissing a man? People in relationships kiss one another! What does this say about the perceived maturity (or lack thereof) of their target audience? I feel like I should be offended!)

Tom Bramwell’s article also touches on the numbers that might help explain these decisions – publishers are, after all, businesses out to make money. Looking back at a report from Penny Arcade, Bramwell notes that games with female leads tend to sell significantly fewer units than games with male leads, while games with optional female leads still managed to sell less than games with male-only leads. This doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The figures that caught my eye showed that “from a sample of 669 current-gen games which had protagonists of a specific gender, only 24 of these were exclusively fronted by women.” Twenty-four. Twenty-four of six-hundred-and-sixty-nine. That’s pretty shameful, and given the fact that most people are therefore more likely to be used to be playing as a male protagonist, perhaps that’s why male-fronted games tend to sell better – there are more of them, and it’s what people are familiar with.

But again, there’s more to it. Those figures above came from Geoffrey Zatkin, COO of consultancy firm EEDAR. He also had this to say:

“Games with a female-only protagonist got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 per cent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually,”

So they don’t sell because no one is trying to sell them. They send them out to die, then claim they don’t sell so that they can strangle the next one at birth? This all seems incredibly counter-intuitive to me; if you’re going to fund a game, why wouldn’t you want it to sell? Why wouldn’t you want to draw in a bigger audience, especially if it’s an audience that has historically been under-represented? Surely by opening up to this audience, this large, 40-per-cent-of-the-market audience, you’d have a captive audience?

Something clearly needs to change here. And perhaps, slowly, things are changing? Here in the U.K., Tomb Raider still sits atop the all-format charts, into its second week of release, so far managing to see off God of War: Ascension. The game has been a massive success for developer Crystal Dynamics, and, speaking as a male gamer, I don’t feel the slightest bit alienated by playing as a female protagonist. Lara is a strong, determined character who goes through hell, fights her way out the other side, and then dives back in to save her friends. She’s a strong person, a good character who cares about her companions and will do whatever she must to help them. Surely we can all relate to that? Her gender is incidental, not defining.

While not as important as the above issues, the article also brought an old question back to the forefront of my mind. It’s something I’ve often wondered about, but the quote about the character kissing a male brought it back to the forefront of my mind: do people really get so into a protagonist that they truly think it’s ‘them’ in the game? I’ve been gaming for almost 24 years at this point, and I know I don’t. Not even when it’s a silent protagonist that’s supposed to make you feel like you are the lead, such as Half Life‘s Gordon Freeman; all of this work to draw the gamer into the eyes of the beardy scientist is undermined, for me, when everyone looks you in the face and calls you Gordon. I’m not Gordon! The vast majority of game characters are just that: characters, constructs. We see them in cutscenes, they have voiced dialogue. They are not ‘me’, can never be ‘me’, so why expend so much effort on trying to drag me, kicking and screaming into the narrative? When I’m playing a game, I’m fully aware that there is usually about six-to-eight feet, a television screen, and often the back of a virtual head between me and the lead character’s mind. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel immersed in the world; I do. But that’s achieved by creating an enjoyable, believable world and filling it with interesting characters, not by trying to trick me into thinking I’m there, because that will never work. Give me a good story, and likeable, well-written characters, and I’m good. I don’t need to be a character in the game, and besides, it’s just not currently possible.

Now, you may have read that and thought, “hold on! Videogames are an interactive medium! Sounds to me like what you’re looking for is a book!” Well, no. I love videogames, I love the interactivity inherent in videogames, but I take issue with the belief that they have to make you believe you’re in the game, as if you’re an actor in a play – physically there, but following direction. Games are not like that. You are not physically there, and until we have holodecks, you won’t be. At most, they’re puppet shows; you’re pulling the strings and moving your puppet, maybe even deciding what they say from time to time (from a limited script, of course), but you’re not there, in the world. It’s Punch and Judy (invariably) with guns. No game is ever likely to make me feel like I’m the star, the lead actor, like this is happening to me (unless I invent the holodeck and write the game myself from my own life experiences – and wouldn’t that be a dull game?), so I don’t need the game to worry about catering its characters to me, because it never truly could. I’m not interested in being a demographic and being spoon-fed what people that don’t know me think I should like based on my age and gender. Just create the best game you can, and I’ll either like it or not. I mentioned that I love the interactivity in gaming, but the aspect I love the most is that they allow us to do things we otherwise can’t – travel to other worlds, save the galaxy, see things from a new perspective, be other people for a little while. So why seek to limit that scope, why seek to limit the viewpoints that you can depict?

And why deliberately seek to turn away almost half of the people out there that are buying your games?

Tom Bramwell’s article for Eurogamer: